If the fighting around Damascus Airport today wasn't the starting bell for the battle for Damascus, I don't know what is. Let us look at this in perspective for a second. At the start of the year Assad was carrying out a "victory" tour of Baba Amr in Homs. The district had fallen after bitter fighting and the situation didn't look any bleaker for Syria as it did back then. Today there is fighting inside and around Damascus. Assad is barely holding Aleppo in the North, and bases as well as checkpoints are falling at a now daily rate. Assad's once feared (by Syrians) air power is suffering regular losses, and now, for the first time, a dramatic and very deliberate cutting off of Syria's access to the internet appears to have been carried out on a national level for the first time.
Damascus is the final goal, and there are reports that the regime has geared up its elite units in a line of defence around the core of the city. In spite of any hopes otherwise, the regime has displayed an almost fanatical obsession with retaining power, and it seems there was never any hope for a peaceful route to change in the country. As Assad said in his first speech, if it is war then we are ready for it. The peaceful protests were continually targeted and brutalized, forcing more and more people to become armed to defend themselves, as well as the first incredibly foolhardy defections from soldiers and officers in the army. Where, I find myself wondering, would we be without those first brave souls who literally risked everything because they wouldn't shoot their own people?
At first we were told there were no defections. Then the first officers defected, following by the first generals and then the first political figures. At first the Free Syrian Army seemed like a bad joke, but they have offered what can only be called a dogged resistance in the face of almost overwhelming odds. They are not, however, perfect, and extra-judicial killings as well as reports of torture make them a force Syrians should be wary of. Also worrying is the fanatically Islamic nature of some of the guerrilla groups that are loosely affiliated with the rebels. It's very clear that they are on some kind of temporary accommodation with each other until the regime is removed, but Syrians should not forget that these groups are fighting for very different reasons.
What needs to happen now, and not when Assad falls, is frank dialogue with all - whether they are Islamists, Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al Nusra, the Kurds, whoever it may be, about core principles. For the sake of the country and their children they have to agree that political disputes, however paralysing, must never again transform into armed conflict. Basic respect for human rights and dignity are not difficult to agree upon and enforce. You do not need special training for policemen and soldiers not to torture people and you certainly don't need special "laws" to allow freedom of the speech and the press. The only guarantee against transgressions against such principles is going to be those same people who protested against Assad. Mass dissent, protest and the use of technology to spread word of abuses are now ingrained in the psyche of many Syrians, and this must continue and be developed.
Never again should Syrians allow the monopolization of power in the hands of one person or party, however benevolent the intentions. The concentration of power in Assad's hands has indisputably caused the biggest calamity this country has seen since the First World War. We must look to what is happening in Egypt and learn from their mistakes. It is clear now that the next battle after Assad will be between Islamists and everybody else, and whilst each side will prefer their vision of Syria prevails, a compromise must be reached. Political Islam is now a fact and can no longer be brushed under the carpet, but it is also clear now that many if not most Syrians do not want to live in an Islamic republic.
Islamists need to submit to the same laws of political reality that secular parties face, and these are things such as addressing unemployment, reconstruction, the economic situation, foreign relations and basic services for the citizens. The priority is not to ban alcohol or block pornographic websites, or to worry about what people are wearing, or what they might do in private. Undoubtedly these are the first things that will give rise to conflict in Syrian society, and every effort must be made to return to a kind of normalcy and predictability in life. Whoever comes to power in Syria will also have to deal with the rise in criminality, another symptom of Assad's desperate attempts to cling to power. Then there is the concern of remnants of the regime, possibly backed by Hezbullah and Iran, that would aim to deny the post-Assad Syria any form of stability.
There is so much to worry about, and so little time to fret, that to say everything will be dealt with after Assad goes is simply not good enough. Positive steps have been the formation of a Free Judiciary, of the however imperfect National Coalition, and of the frail alliances with the different Kurdish political parties representing their constituents in the country but more must be done and this can only be done if citizens can be allowed to congregate, converse and agitate for their interests peacefully, and the corner stone of allowing this to happen is a respect for human rights and dignity.
This respect will not emerge out of nowhere, and that is why it is imperative to continue expecting the highest of standards from the rebels, Islamic or otherwise, and to continue conversing with them. We need to bring them all close, and use Islamic or secular standards of morality and ethics with the respective groups. Most secular people might find it surprising that there is enough room in Islamic discourse to match the boundaries of ethical and moral behaviour that the Universal Convention on Human Rights encompasses. In this, politicians and activists should learn to use such tools in the inevitable dialectic with Islamic groups.
The new Syria will come in various shapes and sizes, and we will need to be intelligent and adaptable with how we approach problems. There is no reason why we cannot, for Syria's natural resource is politics and resourcefulness, in spite of forty years of dictatorship. The priority now for anybody who wishes to have their say should be about rebuilding Syria and its shattered infrastructure. As long as that basic tenet is respected then all should be welcome to propose and argue for their ideas - no taboos. We have no time to wait for Assad to fall before building a new Syria.